Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between interpreting and translating?

Borrowed from the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC)

Interpreting is not translating

Interpreters are often referred to as “translators” and people are not always aware of the difference between the two professions. How are they different? An interpreter works with spoken words in a particular context, conveying a message from one language to another, while translation refers to the activity of transferring a written text from one language to another. Neither is simply replacing the words of one language by those of another, and there are similarities in the intellectual effort required. But there are significant differences between interpreting and translating.

The spoken word

Interpretation is spoken, translation is written. Interpretation therefore makes use of particular linguistic resources: the original speaker’s ideas are transmitted as spoken words, with a particular rhythm and intonation, making use of rhetorical devices and gestures.

Time constraints

Interpretation is carried out in real time (simultaneously) or very close to it (consecutively). The interpreter has no time to refer to the written resources available to translators. This makes preparation before each assignment all the more essential for an interpreter. Another constraint is the extreme speed at which the interpreter has to receive, understand, manage, and reconstruct information. A translator may translate 2000-3000 words a day, while an interpreter has to keep up with around 150 words a minute.

The context of communication

In interpretation communication is immediate, involving an interaction between speakers, listeners, and interpreters. In translation there is always a gap between the writing of a text by an author and its reception by the readers. Apart from this, translators often spend a long time working on one text, while interpreters, often working in a team, are faced with people speaking and communicating right now. Interpretation is therefore not so much a linguistic profession as an information and communication profession.

Interpretation can be simultaneous, consecutive or, more rarely, whispered.

Simultaneous interpreting

The interpreter sits in a booth, listens to the speaker in one language through headphones, and immediately speaks their interpretation into a microphone in another language. The interpreting equipment transmits the interpretation to the headphones of listeners in the meeting room. Simultaneous interpretation is appropriate in bilingual or multilingual meetings and has the advantage of not lengthening the meeting. It encourages a lively discussion and more spontaneous contributions. Simultaneous interpretation requires a high level of concentration, since the interpreter is doing several things at once:

  • listening and speaking,
  • analysing the structure of what is being said in order to present the speaker’s argument,
  • listening to his/her own interpretation to check for slips of the tongue.
  • Interpreters therefore take turns of about 30 minutes.

Consecutive interpreting

The interpreter is in the same room as the speaker and follows their speech while taking notes before presenting their interpretation. Very long speeches may be broken up into parts, with interpretation after each part, but a trained interpreter is capable of consecutive interpretation of speeches several minutes long. This kind of interpretation is suitable for scientific and technical presentations given by a single speaker, or in meetings where only a small number of languages are spoken, since it makes the meeting longer. Note taking is an essential part of consecutive interpreting. It involves committing to paper the logic and structure of the statement as an aid to memory, rather than recording everything that is said.

Whispered interpreting

Whispered interpretation is essentially simultaneous interpreting without a booth. The interpreter sits very close to the listeners and provides a simultaneous interpretation in a quiet voice. At least two interpreters take turns. The practice is hard on the voice and appropriate only for short meetings. Whispered interpreting is not recommended for more than two people. If several interpreters are working at the same time in the same room this can be as noisy and unpleasant for the participants as it is inconvenient for the interpreters.

How do I plan a multilingual event?

Language A & Language B

Most events revolve around two languages — but more are certainly possible. For this guide, we’ll use the shorthand of Language A and Language B.

Overall Participation

Think about the kind of participation you want attendees to have. At some multilingual events, people who are bilingual in A & B or who speak Language A are the only ones with a full range of participation. Creating a multilingual space means everyone can participate in structured activities, even in small groups; can read and understand all written, projected and video materials; and can have their voices heard at any time. Achieving this level of multilingual success requires thinking-through the format of the event.

Greeting & Welcoming

Think about how people will interact with each other, from the moment they walk in the door. Who welcomes them, and in what languages? If they put on nametags, what do they say, beyond their names? If there are labels for any food items offered, in what languages are they written?

Participating in Activities

Next, how will people participate during the event? Will they ever be asked to interact with each other? (e.g. “turn to the person next to you and introduce yourself”) If two or more have to complete a task together, will they be separated into language groups (and how will you do that?) or will you need more than two interpreters to ensure that everyone can participate in the language in which each person wants to communicate?


Will you use songs or poems? If so, can you have the words/lyrics translated in advance?

Getting Support

Once you have an idea of your language access goals, and of the event format, Austin Language Justice Collective can help you figure out how to get there.

How Are Multilingual Events Different?

Planning Begins Sooner

Let’s say you’re planning an awards ceremony. To begin, you might reserve the event space a month away. With interpreting, we recommend getting in touch with us six weeks out to make sure you can book trained interpreters and interpreting equipment (and to help you think through how else to make the event multilingual-friendly). We can usually fill requests with shorter timeframes, but keep in mind “last-minute” requests are difficult for us.

You Do A “Language Inventory”

Who will be there, and what languages should they be able to participate in? What written/projected/video materials will we be using, and how can we make sure all people present can understand them? What activities will involve any form of communication between speakers of different languages? What specialized terminology will we be using that we want to provide the interpreters in advance?

You Might Need a Second Registration Table

For checking-out interpreting headsets/receivers.

You Begin With an Orientation!

Using any kind of interpreting requires the active involvement of all participants — if the interpreter can’t hear, can’t keep up with the flow of words, or if there are problems with the equipment, the message will get lost. The 5-minute interpreting orientation lets everyone know, “this is different, and we need your support to make it work.”

You Might Need to Pause

With two interpreters, one interpreter can usually attend to any receiver malfunctions while the other interpreter stays “on the mic.” But if there is unanticipated mechanical interference, or if the speaker ignores the interpreter’s request to slow down or to speak up, you may need to pause the event until the message is being interpreted clearly.

Less Confused Faces

This may seem obvious, but when 100% of the event is multilingual, there’s less confusion overall.

Easier Cross-Cultural Relationship-Building

This is the most-reported difference between multilingual events and non-multilingual events.